Part II: Leading Innovation

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There is a profound difference between being an ‘innovative leader’ and being a ‘leader of innovation’. Whereas an innovative leader will drive the development of their own ideas, a leader of innovation will tap into their team’s collective knowledge to generate change. It is important to note, however, that the two are not mutually exclusive: being a leader of innovation does not preclude one from also being an innovative leader. The two constructs complement each other, and together engender a holistic approach to innovation.

There are many different theories, tools and studies around how to lead innovation within a team, with entire books devoted to the subject. Yet despite this breadth of literature on the topic, there is still a gap in providing a simple method that can be broadly applied across your team, regardless of size. This literature often originates from Silicon Valley/IT Start-Up institutions, which insist upon the need for large organisations to change their macro processes. Such suggestions are often divorced from reality that you, the reader, are likely unable to change the macro processes you are beholden to.

In lieu of being able to fix some of the fundamental challenges of leading innovation, let’s posit a simple formula for success.

  1. Listen
  2. Resource
  3. Champion

Though conceptually simple, this formula can be difficult to execute. A New Zealand Army case study, of events that occurred on operations in 2017, exemplifies this idea. Deployed NZDF personnel were tasked with building a 3.3km perimeter fence in support of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai Peninsular. As is often the case with military deployments, various pieces of equipment were not available. The team discovered that they lacked a ‘spinning jenny,’ a critical item required to conduct the wiring task. The ordering and delivery of a new spinning jenny would take several weeks, and see the task fall significantly behind schedule. However, one of the sappers approached his troop commander with a suggestion. Having previously worked building fences on New Zealand farms, he was confident that he could create a spinning jenny out of scrap metal and recycled products from the compound’s waste area. The troop commander considered the proposal and agreed to provide the sapper access to the scrap metal, a welder, and two days off to build the spinning jenny. Given these materials, the sapper produced a basic spinning jenny two days later and, as a direct result of his innovation, the wiring was completed on time.

The troop commander contacted NZ Army Innovation and recommended the sapper receive recognition for his work, complete with a detailed explanation of the sapper’s innovative problem-solving. As a result, Sapper K. Lloyd, RNZE, received the No.8 Wire Award for Creative Solutions at the Army Innovation Awards in 2017.

This is a minor example of innovation, but it is elegant in demonstrating the three-step process.

1. Listen

The troop commander listened openly and willing to an idea from one of his subordinates.

2. Resource

The troop commander supplied Sapper Lloyd with the necessary resources, in the form of access to welders, the metal, and two free days to work on the project. This is crucial: too often, leaders encourage their team to work on innovative ideas but refuse to provide the time to do so. Innovation thus becomes a burden on the team, as personnel have to invest time in the new project work in addition to their normal duties.

Resourcing extends beyond time, funding, or equipment to include access to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and other enablers. Leaders have the ability to throw their weight behind initiatives in order to generate momentum. Even something as simple as sending an email requesting an SME to support a subordinate in their work may be the difference between success and failure. In project management this is referred to as ‘signing onto’ an initiative rather than ‘signing off’ on it. This infers that leaders will use their position to open doors for their team members that would otherwise have hindered progress.

3. Champion

The troop commander acknowledged and championed Sapper Lloyd for his innovative approach to a serious operational problem. There needs to be acknowledgement of the individual who came up with the idea, regardless of how much work the leader put in behind the scenes to make it a reality. The reason for this is simple: it encourages others to come forward with their ideas. The worst outcome is the leader being seen to ‘steal’ an idea from subordinates. This kind of practice will undoubtedly lead to personnel keeping ideas to themselves or finding alternative roots for implementation. In the NZDF, Army Innovation has always held up the idea submitter as the champion, even though the vast majority of the behind the scenes work is conducted by Army Innovation staff. This has created a culture where personnel are motivated to put ideas forwards, resulting in a huge surplus of positive ideas.

In this case study, Lieutenant Tom Gilbert’s use of the command chain to communicate Sapper Lloyd’s successes to Army Innovation exemplifies this final step. Sapper Lloyd was thus recognised by the various facets of the NZDF, including the Deputy Chief of Army and the Army Innovation Awards. This kind of championing has empowered the Junior Ranks of the NZ Army, resulting in 70% of innovation submissions coming from Sergeant and below. If you want your personnel to be innovative, then you need to demonstrate that innovation will receive real recognition from the organisation.

At the most basic and fundamental level if you want to successfully lead innovation you need to listen, resource, and champion your team. The case study explained above provides a micro example that can be extrapolated to provide a solution to macro challenges. Ensuring the team can bring their ideas to you and be assured that you will give it fair consideration will encourage them to come forward. Providing the time and resources to work on their ideas will give them the best possible opportunity for success. Finally, ensuring that their success is recognised will encourage others with good ideas to come forward. Leading innovation, rather than just being an innovative leader, enables leaders to overcome the risks inherent with innovative leadership. It provides a holistic approach that allows teams to rapidly adapt to an increasingly complex operating environment. Lessons can be taken from this an expanded to any organisation size: from Platoon to Division these three basic rules never change, only the means of their application.

A question still remains, however: how do we actually develop these innovative thinkers within a unit? The answer lies in a how leaders create and sustain cultures of innovation within their units. This will be the topic for part 3: Building a Culture of Innovation.

This is Part II in a three part series on ‘Leading Innovation’. 

About the author

Tim Jones is the Assistant Director Defence Excellence (Innovation) New Zealand Defence Force. He is also a member of the New Zealand Army Reserves, serving in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment.